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Evil is one thing. Shakespeare’s Iago is something else, with an outsized malevolence perhaps even he could not explain, but which drives him to plot his boss Othello’s destruction.

Old Globe artistic director Barry Edelstein helms a taut, riveting and emotionally devastating “Othello” – the first play of the summer’s outdoor offerings.

Blair Underwood (“L.A. Law”) plays the celebrated general, architect of many victories and a military hero in Venice. But he is still a Moor (played here with dreadlocks and a Jamaican accent) and has had to elope with Desdemona (Kristen Connolly), daughter of Venetian senator Brabantio (Mike Sears), in the knowledge that her father would never consent to their union. But now this man of war has changed – he is so smitten with his wife that he wants only to be a lover.

An honest and trusting man, Othello will prove an easy target for Iago, the consummate plotter, whose pretext is that he was passed over for promotion in favor of Cassio (Noah Bean). But there are other issues – racism, a hidden interest in Desdemona, who knows what else – that have led Iago (Richard Thomas) to this place.

Thomas (“The Waltons”) plays Iago not with slithery histrionics but with straight-out rage that he controls when circumstances demand – but when he tells Roderigo “I hate the Moor,” it’s a chilling moment.

He sets his trap carefully, ensnaring the unsuspecting victim with innuendo and “casual” comments pregnant with insidious meaning. Later he moves on to outright lies, convincing Othello that his wife has been unfaithful with Cassio – a charge that only Othello believes, and that will result in tragedy.

Underwood doesn’t just play Othello, he inhabits the role in a way few others have. His change from happy husband to suspicious spouse to a man actually convinced he is doing mankind a favor by killing his “unfaithful” wife is agonizing but utterly believable to watch.

Angela Reed and Kristen Connolly are heartbreaking as the wives of Othello and Iago. Reed’s horrified Emilia has a particularly fine scene toward the end.

There is also fine work from the rest of the cast – particularly Noah Bean’s Cassio, Jonny Orsini’s Roderigo, Kushtrim Hoxha’s Montano and Mike Sears’ Brabantio.

Edelstein has set the play in the early 19th century and paced the script – pared down to two and a half hours – expertly. Katherine Roth’s lovely costumes complement Wilson Chin’s simple but effective set and Stephen Strawbridge’s fine lighting.

A surprising and welcome element is Curtis Moore’s original music, played by two percussionists (Jonathan Hepfer and music director Ryan Nestor) perched above the stage on a variety of bells, triangles, chimes, drums, stick and the like.

Disheartening as it is to be reminded how easily evil can triumph over good, I’ve never seen it done more expertly than in this “Othello.”

The details

“Othello” plays through July 27 at The Old Globe’s Lowell Davies Festival Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park in San Diego.

Tuesday through Saturday at 8 pm; selected Mondays and Sundays at 8 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.